Testament of Youth (2014)
***This is a true story, set around historical events. So spoilers apply***
Fortunately, the BBC is not letting us forget that we are still remembering The Great War of 1914-1918. One hundred years ago, men were dying all over Europe, in what later became known as WW1. This film was shown at the weekend, and is based on the book of the same name, by British writer Vera Brittain. I have read the book, and also watched the outstanding TV serialisation in 1979. This modern film stays true to both.
Very much a film of two halves, we start off with the rather idyllic lifestyle enjoyed by the English upper classes in the first decade of the 20th century. Polite company, girls looking for husbands, young men looking for suitable wives. Tea on the lawn, swimming in the lake, and walks on the beach. The men are at expensive private schools, and all have solid futures at university, and beyond. Young Vera is a rebel. She wants to go to Oxford University. Few women gained such places back then, and her father fears that it will make her unattractive to any prospective husband. But she is strong and determined, and gains her place at an all-girl college. Meanwhile, she spends the last holiday with her brother, and his two best friends. One of them is besotted with her, and they fall in love and become engaged to marry.
But just as she leaves for Oxford, war breaks out in Europe.
Vera’s fiance promises not to go, but soon joins up. Her brother follows shortly after. The third friend is initially turned down for medical reasons, but as casualties mount, he too joins as an officer. Studying at Oxford, Vera feels useless, and wants to do something for the war effort. She abandons her degree, and becomes a volunteer nurse. After working in England for some time, and seeing the effect of war on the patients she is treating, she asks for transfer to France, to help with the wounded close to the front line, and to be nearer her brother, who is leading his men in the trenches now.
This is a film about tragedy, and how we cope with it. Newspapers in the film are little more than page after page listing the names of men killed in action. Vera’s mother is unable to cope with wartime rationing, and the fact that her household staff have left. Her comfortable life has been shattered, and it affects her mentally. Vera’s sombre father has seen his son off to the war, and is constantly worried about him. As the war goes on, the reality hits home. Vera’s fiance is reported killed, on the very day he should be home on leave to marry her. She gets the news while wearing her wedding dress.
Working in a field hospital in France, Vera is shocked to see her own brother brought in, badly wounded, and left for dead. She nurses him back to health, only to have to watch him leave to go back to the war once again. When they get the news that he has been killed in action later, it almost breaks his distraught father.
This is a noble film. It is not a war film, though there are some short action scenes, mostly in flashback. Much of the action takes place in either comfortable upper-class homes, or amid the horrors of battlefield hospitals, short on resources, and understaffed. I think it is a fine adaptation of the book, with the period feel handled flawlessly, and the viewer completely invested in the emotions and strengths of the characters. Above all, it is the casting that exudes quality. Not a single bad choice, with every actor and actress just right for the role. And what talent is on display too.
Swedish actress Alicia Vikander may seem a strange choice to play the rebellious Vera. But she is just perfect, and her accent is exactly right too. This young woman really knows how to act, and I have never seen her give a poor performance. Vera’s parents are played by Dominic West, and the wonderful Emily Watson, and her female tutor at Oxford gives Miranda Richardson the chance to shine once again, this time in a smaller role. The three men in Vera’s life are all just right too. Her brother is played solidly by Taron Egerton, and her fiance by Kit Harington. Their friend Victor, who has always secretly loved Vera, is a fine turn from Colin Morgan, showing real acting quality.
The British film industry has a long history of delivering compelling historical and period dramas. They tend to do these very well indeed, and this is no exception.